In the grand scheme of things, does it really, truly matter that a professional hockey team based in Winnipeg just hosted a playoff game for the first time in 19 years?

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Opinion

In the grand scheme of things, does it really, truly matter that a professional hockey team based in Winnipeg just hosted a playoff game for the first time in 19 years?

Even asking this question might be considered a heresy against our new civic religion, the Church of the Whiteout. But as things ground to a standstill in our city and province this week after the Jets hosted the Anaheim Ducks for Games 3 and 4 of their NHL playoff series, it’s worth asking: why did a single hockey game matter this much to us?

Fans Cheer in the third period in the third game of the Stanley Cup playoff series between the Winnipeg Jets and the Anaheim Ducks at MTS Centre in Winnipeg last Monday.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Fans Cheer in the third period in the third game of the Stanley Cup playoff series between the Winnipeg Jets and the Anaheim Ducks at MTS Centre in Winnipeg last Monday.

Before I go further, I need to demonstrate my sporting bona fides, just so you don’t dismiss this as the work of a joyless anti-sports misanthrope. I grew up playing hockey, baseball, golf and soccer and spent countless hours with my family watching sports on TV. In fact, I loved sports so much that for a brief time I was even lucky enough to write about them for a living. I have a closet full of football and soccer replica jerseys. I have spent tens of thousands of dollars over the years and have travelled as far as Brazil just to watch my favourite teams compete.

So like most Winnipeggers who follow sports intently, I was excited when the Jets made the playoffs. And, I understood completely when I read the MTS Centre sold out in less than a minute for Games 3 and 4, and that diehard locals were flying to southern California to catch Games 1 and 2.

But sometime early Monday morning, as I listened to the second successive hour of a local radio station talking non-stop about Game 3 and what it means to our community to have the Jets in the playoffs, something snapped in my brain and I began to question our collective obsession with the Jets, and the importance of this game in particular.

I wondered — why was Monday’s hockey game considered a more important news story than the fact a person was shot and killed outside an apartment building in Norwood Flats on Monday morning?

I wondered — why do we shout out the name of a local corporation during the singing of our national anthem, no matter where we are? How silly would it sound if people started chanting Great West Life, or Shindico, during the singing of O Canada?

I wondered — why did hundreds of Winnipeggers line up on a sidewalk on a Friday morning to buy yet another $100 jersey? Yes, because it was white, the nostalgia evoked by the memories of Jets 1.0 indicated you needed to wear something white with a Jets 2.0 logo for the coming Whiteout. But where did people find the money for that — and for the millions spent on tickets, parking, TV packages, beer and food every game day? (By the way, think of the staggering amount locals spend on Jets stuff the next time someone claims Winnipeggers are notoriously cheap).

Finally, I wondered — why are Winnipeggers from all walks of life so captivated by this particular team? Why don’t the Bombers or the Goldeyes generate this level of public hysteria? Or why don’t we freak out about the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Winnipeg Folk Festival or the countless excellent live music and theatre productions in our city?

The narrative is that having the Jets back, and in the playoffs after 19 long years of no post-season hockey in Winnipeg, shows we have resurfaced on the North American radar. When Winnipeg is mentioned on TSN and in North American newspapers for something other than flooding and extreme cold, it means we matter again. Our long-battered psyche has been lifted just a little bit because we’re competing with places such as New York, Chicago and Toronto.

As true as that may be, something much deeper appears to be at work. The truth is we share very few collective experiences anymore. We have smaller and often more fragmented families. We worship together in lesser numbers. Fewer of us belong to unions, clubs or benevolent associations. Technology and the way our cities are designed allow us to live atomized existences where we barely interact with one another.

And yet, despite these forces, there is a primal human instinct to belong to something greater than yourself. As Bernard and Veronique Cova put it in a 2002 article in the European Journal of Marketing, even in a post-modern society people still have the need to gather in "tribes" to share experiences. Cova and Cova argue that these "social, proximate groupings have more influence on their behaviour than either modern institutions or other formal cultural authorities."

Professional sports fill this need perfectly. We show our allegiance to the tribe by wearing its logo, the totem that gives us our identity and sets it against the totems worn by rival tribes. We gather together to lose ourselves in the collective, to scream "True North" during the anthem and "Go Jets Go" at every opportunity, as if this communal strength of voice might be the difference between victory and defeat. We refer to the team as "we" and "us" when we describe its successes and its failures, as if we are the ones in the dressing room, strapping on our skates and going to battle with the other team.

The people running sports franchises understand, as Cova and Cova said, "the common denominator of post-modern tribes is the community of emotion and passion." Indeed, in Winnipeg we are told the Jets are Fuelled by Passion, and on the surface that is true.

However, "we" are not the Jets. The Jets are an extremely well-operated private business that is co-owned by Canada’s richest man and does an incredible job of marketing its product. And the players who actually wear that jersey are well-compensated contractors in a semi-closed market who could be playing for any of the 29 other National Hockey League franchises.

To echo Jerry Seinfeld, when you strip everything else away about professional sports, you’re just cheering for clothes. It’s important to keep that in perspective.

 

Curtis Brown is the vice-president of Probe Research Inc. and is very much embarrassed to admit that he still cheers for the Edmonton Oilers, the team he supported as a young boy.

curtis@probe-research.com

Twitter: curtisatprobe